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What We Learned From the First Day of Public Impeachment Hearings Against Donald Trump

William B. Taylor Jr., the top US diplomat in Ukraine, and George P Kent, a senior State Department official in charge of Ukraine policy, both testified about Trump’s campaign to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, one of his leading political rivals.

New York Times

Updated:November 14, 2019, 9:47 AM IST
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What We Learned From the First Day of Public Impeachment Hearings Against Donald Trump
Bill Taylor and George Kent arrive to testify at a House Intelligence Committee hearing as part of the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump in Washington on November 13, 2019. (REUTERS)

Washington: The House of Representatives held its inaugural open impeachment hearing on Wednesday, taking public testimony for the first time since endorsing the formal inquiry into allegations against President Donald Trump.

William B. Taylor Jr., the top US diplomat in Ukraine, and George P Kent, a senior State Department official in charge of Ukraine policy, both testified about Trump’s campaign to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, one of his leading political rivals.

Here are some of the key takeaways from Wednesday’s hearing.

A stunning new detail offered Democrats another opportunity to make their case against the President.

Taylor testified that a member of his staff overheard a telephone conversation in which Trump pressed Gordon D. Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, on “the investigations.” Afterward, when the aide asked Sondland about the president’s thoughts on Ukraine, Sondland said Trump cared more about “investigations of Biden.”

The new detail, which Taylor recounted for the first time on Wednesday after having learned of it only recently, brought to life the core of Democrats’ argument in the impeachment inquiry. It suggested that the President’s obsession with discrediting his political rivals led him to put his own interests ahead of the nation’s in his dealings with Ukraine.

It was the biggest revelation in more than five hours of testimony that largely matched what had been said behind closed doors.

Career officials struggled with maintaining the norms of American foreign policy in Ukraine.

Kent told lawmakers that efforts by Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, to pressure President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine to open investigations into Trump’s political rivals “were now infecting US engagement with Ukraine, leveraging President Zelenskiy’s desire for a White House meeting.”

Ultimately, Republicans argued, nearly $400 million in military aid was delivered to Ukraine. But both Kent and Taylor detailed how that process was muddled by efforts within the administration to push Zelenskiy to publicly announce investigations that could benefit Trump in his campaign for reelection.

Kent also pushed back on efforts by some of the President’s allies to criticize US officials serving in Ukraine, arguing that “those attacks undermined US and Ukrainian national interests and damaged our critical bilateral relationship.”

Republicans showed how they plan to defend the President.

Republicans, through their top lawyer and their own questioning, offered a glimpse of how they plan to counter the damning accounts from administration officials: by painting them as bureaucrats with an agenda but no firsthand knowledge of the President’s actions.

Both witnesses took care to outline their apolitical backgrounds, noting that they had served under Republican and Democratic presidents during their combined 70 years of diplomatic experience.

But Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, said they were part of a “politicized bureaucracy,” where State Department officials worked to undermine an unconventional president and his foreign policies.

Republicans also tried to pressure them into weighing in on the merits of the inquiry itself, which both witnesses rebuffed.

“I’m not here to do anything having to do with deciding about impeachment,” Taylor said. “That is not what either of us are here to do. This is your job.”

The White House’s refusal to allow officials to testify left openings for a Republican attack line.

House investigators have sought testimony from a number of current and former senior administration officials, including Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff; John R. Bolton, the former national security adviser; and Russell T. Vought, the acting head of the Office of Management and Budget. But the White House has ordered those officials to refrain from testifying, and Democrats have said they will not go through lengthy legal fights to get them to comply with congressional subpoenas.

This has left an opening for Republicans to criticize the witnesses brought forward for only having second- or third-hand knowledge of the President’s motivations and what led to the aid being withheld.

Democrats showed they have learned from previous oversight hearings examining the President’s behavior.

The hearing was the opposite of the ones Democrats convened to hear from Robert Mueller, the special counsel who investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election, and Corey Lewandowski, a former aide to Trump. That was by design.

Lawmakers ceded the opening hours of testimony to their counsels, allowing trained lawyers from each side to pursue substantive lines of questioning in lengthy rounds, instead of the usual rapid-fire, five-minute bursts from lawmakers, who often use their time to make political points.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, also maintained a controlled environment, preventing most interjections from Republicans and quickly dispensing with their efforts to hear more from the whistleblower who first raised concerns about the President’s conduct.

Lawmakers also had a much more willing pair of witnesses on Wednesday, when Taylor and Kent came ready to answer detailed questions and did not shy away from providing their opinions and observations.

Lawmakers’ opinions didn’t budge — and that appears unlikely to change.

The initial House vote to lay out rules for the inquiry was starkly partisan, splitting along party lines with just the exception of two Democrats joining Republicans in voting against the measure. And despite the new revelation on Wednesday, not one lawmaker appeared to shift positions on the idea of impeaching Trump.

Members of both parties emerged from the hearing saying it had helped their side’s arguments. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who joined the Intelligence Committee for the impeachment inquiry, declared it “a good day for the facts, and a good day for the president of the United States.”

Minutes later, Schiff told reporters that the witnesses had painted a picture of a rogue foreign policy channel within the administration in which Trump “sought to advance his political and personal interest at the expense of the United States’ national security.”

Emily Cochrane c.2019 The New York Times Company

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